Suffredin- For a Better Cook County  
 

Accountability
Forest Preserves
Public Safety
Cook County Budget
Forest Pres. Budget
Property Tax Appeal
Health & Hospitals
Land Bank Authority
Policy Resolutions
Unsung Heroine

 

   
 
   
   
 
   
     
  Office phone numbers:  
   
 
 

The Cook County Code of Ordinances are the current laws of Cook County.

   
 

Search current and proposed Cook County Legislation in Larry's exclusive legislative library.

   
  Cook County is the second most populous county in the nation. It is the 19th largest government in the U.S.
   
     
     
     



Jail garden now sells vegetables to upscale restaurants
Chicago inmates cultivate produce for new, high-end customers: Charlie Trotter's and The Publican

Thursday, September 09, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Kevin Pang

The basil has a perfume of its color and the season: a warm, summer's green, herbaceous and sweet. Its leaves cup outward like turtle shells, long and slinky, germinating from plastic black trays inside a steamy greenhouse.

The greenhouse sits 30 yards from Division 9, a maximum-security ward housing murderers and rapists. Separated from them by fences topped with razor coil, the basil lies within a lush patch of life, in an unexpected garden on the grounds of the Cook County Jail. For inmates who are allowed to work here, the ones convicted of far less dangerous crimes, the garden is an oasis within barbed-wired misery. Except oases are often mirages, a figment of the desperate. This is real. The sun peeks through, and life sprouts.

Over six hours, the basil will pass through at least four sets of hands. The first belong to someone who made a terrible mistake. The second doesn't think that makes the first a bad person. The third cooks at one of Chicago's finest restaurants, who will serve the basil to the fourth, the diner, oblivious that the dish they order might right the road for those who've traveled the wrong path.

The inmate

For 17 years, the Cook County sheriff's garden program has donated its wares to food banks and churches. While this continues today (1,700 pounds so far this summer), this year inmates classified as low-risk offenders began growing produce to sell to restaurants such as Charlie Trotter's and The Publican. They graduate from the 10-week course with Master Gardeners' certificates from the University of Illinois Extension. The summer session's graduation is Thursday.

The inmates have never heard of the restaurants whose produce they supply. Some haven't touched fruits or vegetables in years.

Tobias Johnson is 30. "I've never tasted a raw tomato until I came in here. Never," he says. "But I tried it with some salt, and man, it was sweet."

He has tasted ketchup, but never a tomato. On the West and South sides where he grew up, his meals came in buckets and from drive-through windows.

Now Johnson has tried fennel, endive and Swiss chard. He can tell marjoram from sage, Thai basil from regular basil.

It's not the first time Johnson's been incarcerated. This time, he struck his girlfriend in a fit of rage. That landed him 120 days here.

But Johnson has never experienced calmness like in the garden. Many inmates say the same thing: the 14,000-square-foot space soothes them and provides time to reflect.

"I was always ready to jump at things," Johnson says. "But this garden calms me. It's meditation. It helps me take a moment to think before I react."

Inmates volunteer for the program, and not everyone is a right fit. Those accepted are considered low-risk offenders and are trusted with shears, pruners and knives. Through 17 years of the program and 450 participants, not one piece of garden equipment has gone missing.

"I ain't really accomplished nothing in my life, but when I started accomplishing something right here, it felt good," says Johnson, one of 16 who graduate Thursday. "My people, they don't know about this. I'm gonna have a couple of my family members come out here for the graduation. This is gonna put a smile on their face."

The man in charge

Michael Taff bags the basil and tosses it in a blue cooler. He is produce deliveryman and the garden program's Mr. Day-to-Day. He's boot-deep in a dirt patch with the inmates, telling them: "Look where your life has gone." He doesn't think Tobias Johnson's mistakes make him a bad person.

Seven years ago, Taff joined the sheriff's office to become its building coordinator. His boss asked if he was interested in running the garden.

A garden? Taff, 58, a South Side native, a former outside linebacker in a semipro football league, a meat-and-potatoes guy who breaks his fried onion rings to remove the onion, was leery. Then he thought: "Rosey Grier, a Hall of Fame football player, knits. And if he can knit, I can garden."

Taff had no horticulture background. He took the same classes as the inmates: botany, insects, how plants get nutrients from soil. Now the garden has changed him too. He'll opt for grapes and apples instead of Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners.

The program is nearing self-sufficiency (profits — $3,000 this summer — are reinvested in the garden). Charlie Trotter's, the acclaimed four-star restaurant in Lincoln Park, was Customer No. 1.

"I think it's incredibly courageous," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "There are many other places these restaurants could go to get produce, but they've decided to make a statement and be very public about it."

At a restaurant on the level of The Publican or Charlie Trotter's, quality can't be compromised by the good will of publicity. The produce is showcased front and center.

At Charlie Trotter's, executive chef Matthias Merges uses the garden's zucchini in several dishes: a tempura-fried zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and capers, and another course that features a slow-braised zucchini with caraway seed and olive oil. They buy from the jail garden not just for the philanthropy, but, as Merges reasoned, because the product is good.

Above all, officials hope to place inmates into jobs after their release. But many don't make it because of their criminal records, and they revert to old ways. On average, more than half of released inmates will find themselves back in jail.

David Devane, who heads the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention at the sheriff's office, and who founded the garden, touts the program's low recidivism rate as proof of success. They say that since 2008, only 13.8 percent of program graduates have returned to jail.

Taff arrives with his cooler full of basil to The Publican, the Fulton Market restaurant. It's passed off to Paul Kahan, the restaurant's executive chef. Kahan asks Taff, "What'd you bring us? Five pounds? Ten pounds?"

The chef

Six pounds of basil, to be precise.

"Even with our good farmers, the stuff is out of the ground for a day," Kahan says. Taff "picks it and runs it over here. It's still warm."

A few months ago, Taff invited the staff from The Publican to tour the garden. Once the staff sampled the produce, Taff offered the restaurant below-market prices. Taff said he wasn't looking to profit. Kahan and crew were sold.

The restaurant doesn't shy away from its association with the jail. Nichols Farm tomatoes appear in the same menu typeface as Cook County Sheriff's Garden summer squash. Have there been curious looks from diners? Of course.

That was the biggest hurdle Taff thought he'd encounter, the perception that the produce was somehow tainted because it was harvested by inmates. "To my surprise, (the restaurants) were really receptive to me," he says.

That's because, as Publican's chef de cuisine Brian Huston, says, "The basil's been as good as anybody else's basil we've gotten."

The diner

By day's end, the basil will have traveled five miles north from a jail to a restaurant, through three disparate sets of hands, and end up in a house-made pasta dish with tomatoes and roasted corn. That night, 55 people would order the dish, many without a second thought.

kpang@tribune.com


Recent Headlines

Cook County offers two tax exemptions for seniors
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Homewood Flossmore Chronicle

Will political infighting delay your Cook County property tax assessment appeals?
Friday, January 18, 2019
Daily Herald

Cook County offers $8.5 million in transportation grants
Friday, January 18, 2019
Chicago Tribune

Pritzker signs ‘long overdue’ gun dealer licensing bill, vows ‘more work to do’
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Health Opens New Health Center in Arlington Heights
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Daily Herald

A look at other criminal cases where Cook County judges cleared Chicago cops
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

3 Chicago cops found not guilty in Laquan McDonald cover-up conspiracy case
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

Old Cook County Hospital on track to become next city landmark
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

Free Radioactive Radon Test Kits From Cook County
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Special to suffredin.org

Toni Preckwinkle and county watchdog at odds over political travel reimbursements
Friday, January 11, 2019
Chicago Tribune

2 Cook County judges — one cleared of gun charge, one reassigned for anger management — to return to bench at criminal court
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Chicago Tribune

It's been a bad decade for property taxes
Wednesday, January 09, 2019
Crain's Chicago Business

Bond court reform has not put more violent offenders back on the street
Wednesday, January 09, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

Glenview pushes minimum wage, paid sick leave discussion to next week
Tuesday, January 08, 2019
Chicago Tribune

How Fritz Kaegi Plans to Transform the Cook County Assessor’s Office
Friday, January 04, 2019
WTTW Chicago Tonight

Cook County Health recognizes Cervical Health Awareness Month
Friday, January 04, 2019
Special to suffredin.org

2 neighborhood courthouses close: 'You’re discouraging citizens from going to court'
Friday, January 04, 2019
Chicago Tribune

Campaign money tied to Ald. Edward Burke’s alleged extortion scheme was intended for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, sources say
Thursday, January 03, 2019
Chicago Tribune

Cook County, parking operators in dispute over possibly millions in back taxes that could leave consumers pinched
Thursday, January 03, 2019
Chicago Tribune

Preckwinkle pursues back taxes from parking lot operators
Wednesday, January 02, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times

all news items

Paid for by Larry Suffredin and not at taxpayer expense. A Haymarket Production.
^ TOP